Do you groan when you hear the word, “networking?” It might feel like this painful, corporate thing you’re supposed to do. Perhaps it feels like a dangerous game of small talk roulette: at any moment someone will try to sell you something. Certainly, everyone can think of a time when going to a networking event left them feeling mentally wrung out.
Listen: I FEEL YOU. Until fairly recently, I hated it, too!
In the past year, I’ve made the decision to partner with a business coach so that I can level up my business and really conquer the challenges that scare me. When we began our work, one of the first challenges she identified was my outright dislike of networking. I didn’t think I was the kind of person who networks well. I felt that it was counter to my identity to do so and I just plain DID NOT WANT TO. (Do you notice that these are the classic hallmarks of a mindset block?)
So, challenge number one from my coach was to start going to 1 or 2 networking events every week. My goal at these events is to meet cool people- people who might want to be my clients, and people I might want to collaborate with. Because I’m extremely coachable, I dove right in. Fortunately, I’m in NYC and you can find at least 20 networking events on any given day. The very first one I went to was a happy hour for a product management program. Not exactly my ideal client, but a good place to practice without pressure!
I remember that event like it was yesterday. I walked in with my business cards clutched in my hand, prepared with my elevator pitch, ready to “network!” The first person I walked up to got a major deer-in-the-headlights look when I announced that I am a coach. She said “Oh, I was just leaving!” and ran away. This room was maybe 20 x 20 feet, so I saw her for the rest of the night on the other side of it. She didn’t leave, she just wanted to get away from me! The second person I spoke to, literally just stopped speaking and turned on his heel to talk to someone else. Finally, I met a really nice guy who chatted with me and was interested in my work. I got his business card and then fled the scene.
It was uncomfortable and ineffective, as most new things we do are.
I never, ever wanted to do it again, but did I mention that I hired a coach? She’s EXPENSIVE and my husband was hawkishly watching to be sure that I did what she said. He believed in me, he believed in her, so he wasn’t having much patience with me hiding away not doing what I was supposed to do.
It was then that I turned to the psychological literature to remember why networking is so important and to search for tips on how to do it better.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
At the core of the networking problem is that for many of us when we walk into a room full of strangers, our fight or flight response kicks in. This physiological response causes our brain to highlight perceived differences over similarities.
Now keep in mind that we are most comfortable talking with people who we can connect with, who feel familiar, and interested in the same thing as us.
When we are comfortable with someone it feels like this:
When you are standing on the outside of that networking room, with your brain highlighting every available difference, it feels more like this:
To feel more comfortable, and change our attitude about networking, it is our job to actively smoosh those circles. That requires changing both your perception of yourself and your perception of the other people in the room.
Grow your own confidence
One common worry of would-be networkers is the belief that the people in the room are fancier, smarter, or more accomplished than you are. Entering that room, then, feels like a huge risk to your self-esteem. This is classic imposter syndrome, the belief that if anyone actually knew who I was, or how I work, or where I went to school they would laugh me right out of this room. It’s never the truth, by the way, but every powerful woman I know feels like this once in a while (there have been times in my life where I feel like this ALL. THE. TIME.).
When I was in graduate school, I spent a week in DC with the students from my graduate program. We spent the week being introduced to policy makers and learning about how educational policy comes to be. About 2/3 of the way through that week, we had a reception where all those national policy makers and pundits, superintendents of major districts and legislative staffers were invited alongside our cohort and any alumni of the program who happened to be in DC. It was as intimidating a room as I have ever been in. I almost went and hid in the bathroom until I could slide out and go back to my hotel. “I have no business in this room” was on a loop in my head.
But, I really did wanted to get to know these people- this was the whole reason that I came to DC! So I gathered up my courage and started to ask people a provocative question: “When you were in my shoes, what prompted you to pursue a life in educational policy?” Before long I was talking to the former superintendent of Boston about his worry over his grandchildren’s education and then in depth about his impending move from Boston to Seattle. People are people, it turns out, even if they nationally recognized leaders.
I made some really lovely connections that evening once I grew my own confidence. Suddenly it felt more like this:
Doesn’t that feel better already?
Now before you spin out into an imposter syndrome fueled freak out at your next networking event like I did, get our networking guide for tips and tricks:
Change your understanding of the room
While it’s very important to grow your own confidence, it’s also important that you grow your understanding of the other people in the room. When you are uncomfortable with networking, its easy to assume that a room full of people networking would be a room full of people you have nothing in common with. That’s simply not true! First of all, many of the people in the room are just as uncomfortable as you are. Even those who are quite comfortable might still have a lot in common with you.
In short, you are probably judging that room unfairly. It’s not your fault! Our brain creates instant, subconscious, strong opinions about other people from shallow first impressions. It doesn’t use algorithms to systematically make judgments about people from all available data, instead it jumps to conclusions based on a single factor because it’s easier. If you see a woman in heels, you might judge her to be shallow and materialistic. A woman with a backpack? Tourist. A middle aged woman who is slightly tipsy? Divorced or about to become so. Do these throw your back up and make you uncomfortable? Good! I’m sure at least one of those feels insulting and way overboard, maybe on a personal level. This is the kind of thing your brain is doing all the time! And it’s getting in your way when it comes to networking.
Here’s an example: I go to a lot of “women’s networking events’ and I have noticed that there are a lot of effervescent women in attendance. The first time I showed up in one of these events, I almost turned around and left. I’m not effervescent. I was immediately judging them- “I don’t have anything in common with any these woman! I like to have 1 in-depth conversation at a time, not flit around the room air kissing!” Do you see how many assumptions there are in that statement? Obviously, effervescent women are capable of having deep conversations, not everyone in the room was a social butterfly and I’m pretty sure there was just one woman air-kissing (and she was lovely).
When you are able to grow your own confidence and your understanding of the others in the room, you will have hacked your brain, and returned to a confident, safe place from which to network. Like this:
And that’s a really good thing because networking is really, really important.
You MUST to do this work
If you want to be an innovator, a true creative, or a successful client-having entrepreneur, you MUST network. Innovation and opportunity emerge from exposure to “weak ties” in our social network- these are the people who you only kind of know. If you want to regularly tap into that innovation and creativity then you need “only kind of” know more people. Sandy Pentland’s book Social Physics tells us that the best ideas- whether for a business or a solution to a problem- come from those people who have shared their ideas extensively with people outside of their usual, comfort-zone network. In fact, the more people you share your thoughts with the better your ideas become!
In addition, when you are looking for new clients, new speaking opportunities, new places to guest post, or new podcasts to be on, you have to reach beyond your own circle! People you “only kind of” know can tell you about opportunities that would never, ever cross your path!
Finally, you really never know what could come out of a random networking connection.
Here’s a crazy story: I met Caitlin (my co-creater on this psychological super powers series) in 2012 at a conference. She was a graduate student and I was a post-doctoral researcher. Because we were open to possibilities, one of us invited the other to lunch (we can’t remember who!) and we had a great conversation. We stayed connected on Facebook over the next several years, but never really connected in a deep way until 2016.
Is networking my favorite thing now? Not a chance. But because I have a better understanding of why I’m feeling the way that I do, I have been able to find a way to make the most of networking events. And you know what? I am actually starting to enjoy going and meeting new people- *gasp*.
Before you go to your next networking event, grab our guide on how to make the most of your experience below!